August 21, 2017

Surviving as a Teacher

Success in teaching depends on too many variables for any teacher to claim, “This is the right way to teach. This is what works.”

That said, I’m not hesitant to claim expertise in at least one aspect of teaching — survival. I lasted long enough in the profession to collect a retirement check, and I left with my love for teaching intact. 

Based on my ability to make it long enough to retire, I have developed a few suggestions for surviving in the profession. The list is by no means complete. It is simply a list of a few things that worked for me.

For teachers looking for a few words of encouragement, here’s my recommendations for surviving in the teaching profession.

1. Never enter a classroom unprepared.
To various degrees all teachers confront bad behavior in the classroom, and even the best teachers must occasionally deal with a “student from hell.” However, a teacher who can keep a classroom under control is a teacher who can survive. In my experience the best classroom management plan is a good lesson plan, a lesson plan that engages students. Teachers who do this well are generally able to guard against behavior problems before they develop and put themselves in a position to enjoy the rewards of teaching.

2. Find a way to motivate and inspire students.
Teachers should do everything they can to light a fire under their students. Teachers who can inspire students are also the teachers who are inspired to remain in the classroom.  

3. Never quit learning and growing as a teacher.
If something can't grow, it dies, and survival as a teacher requires the ability to avoid getting stuck in a rut. Keep learning. Keep growing. Talk to other teachers, and observe them in action. Ask how they create lesson plans and how they deal with classroom management. Attend workshops and conferences. An inexperienced teacher can learn a lot from someone with a few years in the classroom, and an experienced teacher might even learn something worthwhile from a first year teacher. In any case, all teachers should keep growing and keep changing.

4. Bring a sense of playfulness into the classroom.
In a perfect world learning for the sake of learning would be enough to make a class enjoyable. However, teachers might sometimes need to resort to something a little more entertaining — corny jokes or silly costumes, for example. Teachers are more likely to remain in the profession when they find a way to have fun, and the best way for teachers to have fun is to find a way for students to have fun. 

5. Have faith in youth.
Teachers are not served well by remaining ignorant about the things that interest young people and letting a generation gap make them cynical about the behavior of the young. Teachers should have faith in youth and believe in the potential of youth. They should let their faith in youth translate into a faith in the future and their faith in the future translate into a faith in humanity. Teachers who maintain this faith will not find it difficult to survive in the classroom.

6. Maintain an idealism about the profession.
Teaching is a noble profession. No less than the success of each student and the health of our communities depends on how well we educate our youth. Most teachers enter the profession with an innate sense of the higher purpose of the profession, and they should not let that idealism disintegrate. Idealism about the profession feeds the spirit and helps a teacher survive in the profession.

7. Never lose heart.
“A good teacher is like a candle that burns itself out lighting the way for others.” That age-old saying (author unknown) describes the serious problem of teacher burn out. Teaching is a difficult job, to say the least. Students, parents, administrators, community organizations, and politicians often demand more than teachers can possibly achieve, and teachers must work hard to avoid losing heart. Good teachers are one of the most valuable resource in any society — if not the most valuable resource. To keep from losing heart a teacher should learn to savor the rewards of the profession and stay focused on the needs of children. 

8. Find a hobby outside teaching.
All good teachers face the problem of being consumed by their work. Evenings and weekends are spent creating lessons, evaluating student work, or sponsoring student organizations. Vacations are spent going back to school, working on curriculum, or attending workshops. If teachers do not routinely get away from their jobs they face burning out. They must therefore find something outside the profession that engages their interest. They must get away from the stress that comes with teaching. They must take time to play a musical instrument, read a novel, join a book club, go hiking, listen to music, attend a play, go to the movies, remodel a home, join a sports league, or go fishing. They should find something that allows them to turn off the problems that come with teaching, problems that might push them into losing their desire to remain in the classroom.

9. Maintain a sense of humor.
The author Richard Carlson once wrote, “Don’t’ sweat the small stuff — and it’s all small stuff.” That might sound like clever advice. However, Carlson was probably not a public school teacher and was not vulnerable to issues that would horrify, frustrate, and break the heart of even the most lighthearted soul. Any teacher who has known a student suffering from terminal cancer or a student who fires a gun in school knows that it’s not all “small stuff.” Indeed, the only way to handle some problems is to go home, lie in bed, and weep. On the other hand, Carlson was right in one sense. Many of the frustrations teachers face amount to nothing more than little things that are best handled with a sense of humor. For example, most of the day-to-day, time-consuming, dumb requirements from administrators can be completed without taking them too seriously. After all, administrators change their stripes every year or so. This year’s administrative crusade might be abandoned next year. Experienced teachers learn to play along with “administrivia” just enough to keep administrators happy — then they do what’s right for students. In addition, most of the childish things students do to aggravate teachers should be put into perspective and handled with a sense of humor. Children often act immature simply because they are children. Good teachers know this and learn to handle childish behavior with a smile.

10. Enjoy knowing students.
Most teachers get into the profession for reasons of the heart, and more than anything else it’s the students who feed the heart of the teacher. Students nourish the teacher’s spirit. Students make all the heartache and stress worthwhile. Students are the best fringe benefit of the profession, and teachers should always keep this in mind. 

© 2010 James L. Smith

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